Winners of the year
With a few weeks left to go, Greeley and Ben and Shinny were locked at the top with 11 wins in 2021. The seven-year-old Greeley and Ben missed all of 2018 and took another year off in 2019-20. He made up for it with nine wins in a row in the Midwest.
Four-year-old Shinny matched that streak, hitting win column from Arizona to Minnesota and back to Arizona, and could break it with his next win.
Dreamer of the year
Letruska and trainer Fausto Gutierrez ventured from Mexico in 2019 to look for a bigger world. St George Stable’s homebred daughter of Super Saver eliminated travel stress by winning four times last year and six, including four Grade 1 stakes, this year. She finished the season with a disappointing 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff but that was just a paint drip on a canvas masterpiece.
The long goodbye
Mario Pino set out to reach 7,000 wins this year. The 60-year-old jockey vowed to do it at Presque Isle Downs, a little track in Western Pennsylvania where Pino has been based for the latter part of his career.
As the clock clicked down, the consummate professional, a jockey’s jockey, Pino reached the milestone on the second-to-last day of the meeting, rode the next night, tacking on one more to retire with 7,001 in his storied career.
The key to that kind of longevity, that kind of success? “A passion for it. Work ethic, good attitude, just showing up, even when sometimes I was tired or sick, I still went and rode and that’s not easy sometimes,” Pino said. “I just kept going. I worked hard. It was a job for me from day one that I loved and I was blessed to be a jockey. It was a perfect job for me.”
Joel Rosario and Irad Ortiz Jr battled for supremacy at the top of the jockey standings all year long and still had another round to go. That ended when Rosario cracked a rib and Ortiz earned a 30-day suspension by the New York Racing Association’s stewards after two incidents in December. Rosario led Ortiz by over $3 million in earnings while Ortiz led Rosario by over 100 wins.
Rosario should win his first Eclipse Award for a stellar year that included five wins aboard probable Horse of the Year Knicks Go.
As for Ortiz, a three-time Eclipse Award winner, hopefully he learns from the ban and learns to temper a style which has become reckless.
Trainers Brad Cox and Steve Asmussen pulled $8 million ahead of Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher in the earnings battle. With $30,918,451, Cox led Asmussen by nearly $600,000 with weeks still to go.
They each should surpass the all-time record for yearly earnings, set by Chad Brown in 2019 with $31,112,144
Cox engineered lucrative seasons with Knicks Go, Essential Quality and Mandaloun and Asmussen was at the helm of Grade 1 stakes winners Silver State, Jackie’s Warrior and the undefeated two-year-old filly Echo Zulu.
Asmussen became the all-time winningest trainer during the Saratoga meeting, the ticker kept ticking with 9,568 by mid-December. They say the best way to learn is with your own money, Asmussen owned the winners of 82 races for over $1.6 million.
Graham Watters earned his first champion steeplechase jockey title, winning with five of his final eight rides to stave off Tom Garner. Riding first call for Jack Fisher, who won his 14th leading trainer title, Watters rode hard and rode well, overcoming a 2-for-23 skid in the middle of the year.
The Navan-born Watters, 30, won his first Grade 1 stakes when guiding Snap Decision to win the Iroquois in May, one of seven stakes wins during the season.
The Queen is king
Irish-bred The Mean Queen burst onto the U.S. steeplechase scene with an allowance score in May. By October, she had added three Grade 1 stakes wins to clinch a certain Eclipse Award.
Owned by Buttonwood Farm, trained by Keri Brion and ridden by Tom Garner and Richie Condon, the daughter of Doyen was due to go back to Europe with her sights on Cheltenham in March.
Red, white and blue
Godolphin dominated all owners with 82 wins and over $17 million in earnings (that includes Mystic Guide’s win in the Dubai World Cup). Led by Mystic Guide, Essential Quality, Maxfield and Breeders’ Cup heroes Yibir, Space Blues and Modern Games, Godolphin has, indeed, become the world-wide juggernaut it had always promised to become.
The sign of the times
Trainer Neil Howard announced his retirement this fall. The veteran trainer, winner of 1,256 races and over $53 million, choreographed the careers of champion Mineshaft, Preakness winner Summer Squall and numerous Grade 1 stakes winners.
Howard shut down his dwindling stable to take a job as assistant trainer to Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey.
Lie of the year
In what was called ‘Declaration of the Year’ in the 2020 edition of this recap, it read: Authentic’s trainer Bob Baffert issued a statement during Breeders’ Cup week after numerous medication positives, including two with top three-year-old filly Gamine, vowing to do better. In a sport desperate to regain respect and creditability, Baffert needs to follow his vow. That was a year ago. Sadly, he didn’t, and the sport suffered.
Loss of the year
Jockey Miguel Mena was killed while crossing a busy Kentucky Interstate on Halloween. The 34-year-old had won over 2,000 races and many more friends since beginning his riding career in 2003.
Loss of the year II
Dr. J. David Richardson died of Covid this summer. A renowned heart surgeon, a noted owner/breeder, a volunteer and a proponent for good, the racetrack will never be the same. Doc, thanks for the stories, thanks for the memories.